[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
Friday night on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, Heather Hemmens and Niall Matter take to the skies in a romance set against the backdrop of the US Air Force Thunderbirds program. Hemmens is pilot Emma, newly arrived stateside with daughter Lucy (Pietra Castro) after a stint in Japan and Matter is Paul, a fellow widowed single parent and model girl dad to daughter Alice (Georgia Acken). They meet via Emma’s mom, Carol (Lossen Chambers), who’s a nurse in the cardiac unit where Alice is a patient.
The daughters strike up an immediate friendship, followed quickly by a courtship for their parents, until a few wrinkles intervene. This week, I spoke with Thunderbirds Public Affairs Officer, Captain Kaity Toner, who was the network liaison during production of the film.
She says they were thrilled to partner on the project, especially given the symmetry of their shared values and mission statement. “We got a copy of the script and we [said], ‘We absolutely wanna be a part of this.’ It’s really beautiful. Being part of the Department of Defense, we don’t often look into the movie-making businesses, but this time we looked at the mission statement and [saw that] this aligns so well with our mission. Hallmark believes that if you care enough, you can change the world. And that is essentially what the Thunderbirds believe,” she shares.
“Our mission is ‘recruit, retain, inspire.’ But this particular team, over the last couple years, we’ve focused more on the inspiration piece and we’ve really tried to get back to our roots and why we were founded in 1953. And that’s to inspire folks and to connect the American public with its military, and what better way to do that than connecting emotionally on a global scale with a project like this.”
While the film doesn’t involve any combat situations, Captain Toner says there was still a significant degree of complexity in shooting the film, and capturing the precise aerial moves involved in the Thunderbird formations. “There is a simplicity whenever you work with the Thunderbirds, because we are meant to be seen. We don’t have classifications that prevent people from being able to see the entire mission from start to finish. It’s definitely a nice perk of this unit to be able to do this type of work because we don’t have to worry about protecting information or data or anything of that sort,” she explains.
“But our flying is some of the most challenging technical flying that you could ever see or witness. The Thunderbirds are very experienced combat pilots [and they] have all said [this] is the most challenging flying that they’ve ever done. Portraying that on the screen was also kind of challenging.”
“We worked really hard to make sure that radio calls matched the aerial footage that the Thunderbirds provided. And we’re very proud of our demonstration and our flying. When they told us they wanted to come and film at the Thunderbird hanger, we thought, ‘There’s no other way to do it. That’s perfect.’ That’s exactly what this hanger is for. It’s red, white, and blue. It’s the oldest hanger on Nellis Air Force Base, but you see it and you know, it’s the Thunderbird hanger. It’s kind of iconic in that way.”
“For us to be able to work with a team that really saw the importance of the authenticity and the accuracy of the flying made it easy to work together. They weren’t intrusive in our hangar. We just expanded our family and it was really beautiful to see. They’re very professional, very efficient. And it was a very cool project for us to be a part of.”
The movie also highlights the diversity of pilots in the Thunderbird program, something Captain Toner says was important to capture. “We aim to inspire all walks of life, any age, any gender, any demographic, any socioeconomic status. Something we are very, very proud of is ensuring that our team’s hiring is merit-based. Our team has 135 members, not just the six you see in the sky. We really represent the nation,” she points out.
“We’ve got people from all over. And it’s a really beautiful story to see that diversity amongst the team be represented. Major Lauren Schlichting, our actual female pilot in the Diamond, [is] our first female slot pilot in history. And it can’t be understated that she earned that spot. We brought back what we call flying evaluations.”
“We test people in the jet and we rack and stack them and say, ‘Okay, who flew the best?’ And it’s really amazing when you can confidently move forward and say that this person earned their job. And you know, we like to joke and say, ‘The plane doesn’t care what parts you have or what you look like. It cares how you fly it.’”
“It’s really beautiful that we have that and that we are able to appeal to that audience of young girls today. The movie did a fantastic job of showing young women interested in aviation, period. It’s something that people don’t think about regularly. Society kind of pushes that interest and STEM career field, the science, technology, engineering and math, toward men.”
Matter’s character, Paul, is feted in the movie as a hometown hero, and Toner says they were excited to bestow the real-life honor on Matter this summer, which included him getting to ride shotgun in an actual F-16. “I was there with them while they were filming Niall’s flight scene [when he] gets out of the aircraft and is blown away by what they just did, the G-forces and the maneuvers,” she says.
“I loved watching that be filmed because at that moment in time, I had been in the background discussing how we could potentially help promote the film and I had this idea of actually [flying Niall and getting his reaction]. I was very excited to watch it be filmed because we did end up flying Niall at one of our air shows. And his reaction, to his credit, was so similar. It kind of brought everything full circle. He’s fantastic. We were really inspired by his resiliency, so we named him our hometown hero for the Tacoma, Seattle area.”
Photos courtesy of the United Stats Air Force and Craig Minielly and Kim Nunneley for Hallmark Media.
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